Oh Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe
With loss of Eden.… (John Milton, Paradise Lost 1.1–4)
I don’t blame Eve. I would have eaten that apple. I know that voice in the garden, that stirring inside, that reaching for something more, that question forever hanging before me: “What is missing?” I would have eaten that apple if only to escape the daily tasks of pruning and digging in the garden, the constant bliss of warm sun and cool wind on exposed skin. Maybe it’s because I’m a poor gardener, but I don’t find Milton’s Eden appealing. Give me binge-watching Breaking Bad on Netflix. Give me the urban concrete of Chicago in the middle of winter. Give me motion, struggle, and gritty truth. That is humanity as we know it. What else could there be?
On Tuesday nights for two hours every week over the course of six weeks I studied Paradise Lost with a diverse group of folks. Our instructor, Robert Ultimo from the Feltre School in Chicago, suggested we break up the reading into chunks, 250 lines or so a day. He instructed us to read it aloud. And then for two hours every Tuesday night we gathered with him to discuss our weekly reading of the epic poem. During the first few weeks, the thoughts and ideas that had come to me while reading were clear, ready and rising to the surface. The ideas that were placed on the table before me were like thick slices of chocolate cake — sweet and rich, almost too much to take in. It was good discussion, lively and challenging.
For know, whatever was created needs
To be sustained and fed. (1.414–415)
We were instructed to read it aloud so that we could get the feel of the rhythm, the line breaks, the hyperbaton…and I did that. I’d underline words, jot down phrases, and then, on Tuesday nights, I’d listen to the arguments and insights from our strange mix of conversation partners that included a corporate attorney, a former science professor, a jazz composer, a filmmaker, a high school literature teacher, and a pen-and-ink artist, to name a few.
Most in the group were already acquainted, having just finished a course in Boetheus with our instructor. Robert had a way of managing the odd mix of students, a way of speaking with us that was equal parts Yoda and John Housman in The Paper Chase. In response to questions that were apt to take us further from the road he’d lay out before us he’d say simply, “That question does not obtain. Ask another one.” And we’d all nod in response, feeling our way through as if in wading into deep water on a dark night.
We were a mash-up on a spiritual level as well. For two or more hours we sat, this unlikely gathering of pilgrims — agnostics, atheists, philosophers, and Christians of one stripe or another — to discuss the week’s reading assignment. Robert would start by giving notes on the text, digging under the surface of the poem and unearthing artifacts, asking us often what we thought made this work endure. Each week Robert would ask us to consider why we were there — what do we want from this study? Why this poem? Why now? For me, the study was a chance to move back into literature after spending years reading nonfiction, theological texts for the most part that would fuel my long journey into Eastern Orthodoxy. I was ready to shift my brain finally into another space, a nostalgic return to my long gone college years spent studying fiction and poetry. I was missing that version of myself after noticing her absence all those years.
It was a few weeks into the class that I suddenly felt as though I was in the ocean, treading water with seasoned and well-equipped scuba divers. The language was the water surrounding me, warm and inviting, salty and buoyant but dark below. It was the darkness that drew me. As much as I tried to get in touch with the text, with the loss of Eden, I felt drawn to the darkness below and I swam in that. I realized that I was moved more by the story of the fall of Satan than the fall of man and that bothered me a little, though I wasn’t sure why. Whenever this happens, I hear the words of Joan Didion in my head and write it down — as she says, “to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
The notes I had scribbled in the margins of my book were in pencil for the most part. When I’d find time to sit down to do my reading I never seemed to find a pen with ink remaining, but pencils were strewn all over the house — a byproduct, I suppose, of having children knee-deep in elementary school. At first, I underlined more than I left untouched, jotting gray graphite insights and questions in the open spaces. When I finally made time a few weeks later to write about the experience of the class, the pencil marks were already beginning to rub away along with the memory of the discussions. The remnants of that thick, rich chocolate cake, almost too much to take in while it sat before me on the table every week, was fading too. I stood empty handed for a long time with my fingers hovering over the keyboard. The words wouldn’t come, and when they did they were not the profound insights I’d hoped for — just feelings, commentary as though it was a television show I had watched instead of a deep study of this classic, epic poem by John Milton.
The idea is there, the seed of thought, just out of reach. It is as though I have awakened groggy, remembering a dream. I wrap my fingers around some solid, slippery notion, drinking coffee from that one tall mug I reserve for myself. I rush to write it down and it slips way. There is something just out of reach — some phrase, some insight, some truth. It is a place I cannot remember, a word I struggle to speak, just on the tip of my tongue, trapped behind my teeth. Maybe I am too old for this. I’ve forgotten too much about literature and discussion and terminology and diving deep.
All I could think was that Paradise Lost would make for terrible television. The antagonist’s back-story is full of holes. If Lucifer was so powerful and popular why would he want to give all that up by going to war against a Creator he knew he could not beat? The protagonists, Adam and Eve, are basically boring and unspoiled gardeners. Even HGTV would have turned down their show pitch. Eve rebels by eating the fruit of the tree on the advice of a talking reptile and Adam follows along not because he wants to know what he’s missing but because he would rather not give up another rib for God to make another Eve.
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart. (7.911–912)
My scribbling in the margins on those pages consisted of snarky remarks and sometimes exclamation points with no words at all. I could not help thinking from my modern woman’s perspective that Milton’s Adam was an ass.
No no! I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe. (9.913–916)
I tell myself as I read those words that I love my woe, my struggle. I wake up each morning and my struggle greets me along with my strong morning coffee and weak morning prayers. I try to lay it down there at the altar, next to the coffee mug, but I need that woe. It comes in handy. It fills the void I often forget exists in me until just the right moment hits and all the empty space expands, cracking through to the surface.
I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start
—Peter Gabriel, "Blood of Eden"
I listened to Regina Spektor’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Blood of Eden” twelve times in a row in my car as I waited for my oldest son after school one day. I was early for the pick-up line, so I parked just around the corner to wait. I had intended to do my assigned 250 lines of Paradise Lost while I waited. I had intended to read them aloud in the car, pushing through, finding the rhythm until it gave me a headache. I kept missing the point. I kept missing the punctuation. I was rambling around Book VIII, distracted by my disdain for Adam and Eve: their naïveté, their constant pruning and puttering, their soft embraces and kind words were getting on my nerves. What was it about the story of Adam and Eve that made me feel so angry, so frustrated and impatient? When I mentioned it to Robert, he smiled and said, “Ah, yes, the static domestication of eternity!”
I would have eaten that piece of fruit. I would have listened to that persuasive voice after being cooped up in that garden, digging my fingers in the dirt all day with birds chirping and cattle lowing, no danger, no death, no excitement save the budding trees and bulging clouds. But I was in the school pick-up line, so I listened to Regina Spektor on repeat instead, her voice soft as air, cutting through all the complaint that had been filling me as I tried to read my 250 lines aloud.
I can hear the distant thunder
Of a million unheard souls
Of a million unheard souls
Watch each one reach for creature comfort
For the filling of their holes
—Peter Gabriel, "Blood of Eden"
When I had heard this version of the song for the first time earlier that day, I was taken apart by it. I had to pull over because I couldn’t drive and give in to the wash of feeling at the same time. I’ve known this song a long time, but this version, this reaction, was new, as though some missing piece, some emptiness, some lacking was suddenly revealed to me and I felt the grief of it finally. Why this artist? Why this song? Why now?
At my request you take me in
In that tenderness I am floating away
No certainty, nothing to rely on
Holding still for a moment
What a moment this is
Oh for a moment of forgetting
A moment of bliss
—Peter Gabriel, "Blood of Eden"
The moment of bliss was there, just out of reach but I knew it was there. That day, after listening to Regina Spektor twelve times in a row, I would stretch my hand forward, toward the nightstand, the desktop, the kitchen counter and find that empty space, that residual grief, that unnamed place. An idea was waiting there, an anchor for something important, something missing — but it was too far from my fingertips. I’d have a fleeting thought for how to begin to articulate what I felt or how to further what I’d written already or how to end finally but I just could not quite get the words down. I considered that this might just be something I could not write. Perhaps it was something that had to be experienced, like the night my mother and I stretched out blankets on the deck late at night in the middle of winter and watched the Geminid meteor shower above our heads. No matter how I tried to describe the stars shooting across the sky the words failed. Maybe it’s like that, I thought. I could not write it. I could only swim in that moment as I made dinner or swept the floor or sat in the car listening to Regina Spektor sing the words Peter Gabriel wrote years earlier, the piano chords chunking out below her, making a bed on which she could lay down her vocals.
Is that a dagger or a crucifix I see
You hold so tightly in your hand
And all the while the distance grows between you and me
I do not understand
—Peter Gabriel, "Blood of Eden"
Then the words of Milton’s Adam come back and find me a second time. I read them again while the lyrics of Peter Gabriel mix in my head, words he wrote after his divorce — about the distance growing, about the pain of the dagger, about his struggle and his loss. I read Adam’s words again and think that perhaps he had something there, some grasping of truth about the link of nature and connection to the other, the unseen bond, the clear presence of our Creator so close. Something shifts in the way I read his words, having had that moment with the Blood of Eden, a moment to connect with loss and beauty.
O sacred, wise, and wisdom-giving Plant,
Mother of science! now I feel thy power
Within me clear. . . .
Queen of this Universe! do not believe
Those rigid threads of death. Ye shall not die. (9.679–681, 684–685)
I know the other voice in the garden and I know that soft sibilance of temptation, tongue on teeth as the words come from the serpent. Eve stood alone at the base of the Tree, astounded at this animal talking and yet unafraid as that fruit glowed above her head. She, misled into thinking she was missing something already, took it in her hand, sure of nothing, sure of everything, bound to fail by that trait woven in from the start.
Is there something else, something better, something withheld and dangling from the branch above our heads? Perhaps that is our nature: grass is greener, fruit is sweeter, knowledge is king. We are always searching for that missing piece, that connection. And yet it occurs to me that we do not know what we’re missing. We do not remember the garden, the innocence, the feeling of contentment and completion.
In the blood of Eden we have done everything we can
In the blood of Eden, so we end as we began
—Peter Gabriel, "Blood of Eden"
At our last Tuesday discussion together, the philosopher focused on the grander notions while the artist commented on the feelings coming out on the page — the grief and loss, anguish for leaving the Garden. The English teacher drew everything back to the text, words and references and line breaks. The jazz musician was consumed with the rhythm of it all, but the atheist in our group bristled. He posited that Milton’s God was condemning, was nothing but dust and old stories meant to sway us from truth and reason. I suggested that Milton’s God was meant to demonstrate the loss of Eden, this idea of our hands reaching out in the dark for what we’re missing, but the atheist said that we are missing nothing and have never been anything more than this. What else could there be?
The commentary hung for a moment there in the middle of the table. The atheist in our group was fueled then to question Milton’s theology, his word usage, his mix of religious references with mythology, the unlikely motivations of Adam and Eve. Why would they give it all up? Why would Eve willingly take that fruit, having been in paradise? But that question does not obtain, as Robert would say. Without Eve having taken the fruit, there is no story.
It is the story that moves us. It is the story we connect to — the story of us all in way or another. In the light of Peter Gabriel and Regina Spektor that day, I finally understood this. I feel that longing, that loss of something more. I see what my own spiritual perspective, my Eastern Orthodox catechesis, has been trying to teach me for the last four years — that we are missing something profound, and that we are reaching for it always in music, in literature, in gardening, in poetry, in grief.
Having taken the fruit, having begun our story, we are not subject to this static domestication of eternity. We are split into pieces, hearing the distant thunder of a million unheard souls all crying out for the place we truly belong. We are now in the story, out of our element, trying always to gather ourselves back together. We are missing the rib, the garden, the Tree of Life, the creature comfort we can never regain, the simple vision of God standing there on the path, in the trees, wind blowing with His voice clear, like air coming to rest in the cool of the evening . . . in the story, in the blood of Eden, so we end as we began.
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared most recently in Burnside Writer’s Collective, St. Katherine Review, Rock and Sling, Image Journal's Good Letters blog, the Ruminate Magazine blog and the Art House America Blog. Her first book, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition, releases July 31st from Ancient Faith Press.